Bolstered by a string of irrefutable hits (Aquaman, Shazam, Laughman) that didn’t need to be irrefutably good, DC Films’ latest thing, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), is more ambitiously reactionary than usual. Quadrupling down on their wait-and-see approach, the film aims to give fan-favorite Harley Quinn a more suitable vehicle than Suicide Squad, take a mulligan on super-powered team-ups (Justice League and, again, Suicide Squad), continue Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel‘s streak of successful female-led superhero stuff, and capitalize on some of that sweet, Deadpool-style, R-rated irreverence. It’s a clumsy game of Twister to balance, and credit is due to Birds of Prey for at least not immediately collapsing.
The film opens with a very cartoon-y cartoon history lesson in Dr. Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the pugnacious, tattooed, New York-accented jester known for dating and side-kicking for Batman’s arch-nemesis. With the film blissfully sitting out on the Jared Leto debate, Harley and her off-screen beau bust up, forcing her to strike out on her own for the first time since she was a mere psychologist in the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane (a fact she reiterates by casually rattling off diagnoses of people in conversation). She keeps the breakup a secret in order to continue enjoying the immunity afforded to the girlfriend of Gotham City’s Clown Prince of Crime.
Rudderless and wounded but tacitly untouchable, Harley foregoes any semblance of impulse control in getting shit-faced, breaking legs, stealing drinks, and puking in purses in a club owned by slimy, entitled gangster scion Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (aka Ewan McGregor, trotting out his little American accent again). She grows weary of being underestimated and living in the shadow of her former paramour and—bragging that she has her best ideas drunk—plows a gasoline truck into Ace Chemicals, detonating the site of their love’s ivory-fleshed consummation and loudly declaring her singlehood.
But poor impetuous Harley forgot to consider the long queue of unsavories she’s fucked over in the past. Now all her would-be enemies are unencumbered in their desire to make her very dead—namely, Sionis.
Concurrently, a handful of other B- and C-list DC Comics characters in the city are also wearing targets on their backs: teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco); Detective Renee Montaya (Rosie Perez, reprising her diminutive, indestructible Pineapple Express cop role); Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a tough lounge singer stupid enough to leave her phone with clandestine text messages out in front of Sionis’ generic psycho thug Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina); and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a frustrated assassin whose self-serious sociopathy is played for some solid laughs. Teaming up, the five of them get entangled in Sionis’s violent hunt for the world’s dumbest MacGuffin: a diamond encoded with banking information for a deceased crime family’s fortune.
That bonehead MacGuffin is endemic of Birds of Prey‘s central flaw. Bumblebee scribe Christina Hodson’s get-the-thing, good guy-vs-bad guy script is embarrassingly straightforward, way past the point of banal. This would almost be fine if director Cathy Yan and her editors, Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff, didn’t try to pretend their movie is more interesting by slicing up the narrative, shuffling it, and Scotch taping it back together with Harley’s fourth wall-breaking voiceover and some tiresome Word Art infographics. (Or, maybe if it was just funnier.) Suicide Squad and Captain Marvel were also guilty of this trickery—to very different degrees—and all three further distracted with popular music drops (here, mainly a mix of classic rock covers, like its plaintive “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and modern empowerment pop). And like Marvel, one of Birds’ brief dalliances with fun comes courtesy of a manic rock-and-roll-fueled scuffle—albeit this time cocaine is the engine.
For as much intense, close-quarters combat as Birds of Prey has, and as bone-crunchingly brutal (so many hyperextended knees) as it occasionally is, it doesn’t approach the inspired, graceful mayhem of a John Wick or Atomic Blonde. Yan just doesn’t seem all that comfortable orchestrating or capturing this type of action choreography, too often sending her heroes out with melee attacks against enemies who stand politely still and—in the event they are even carrying a gun—never open fire. Still, as plain-spoken as the direction is overall, it doesn’t detract from the simple pleasure of, say, watching a shotgun emblazoned “FUN GUN” blast a slow-motion beanbag into the face of a doughy cop. The thing fires multicolored smoke and confetti too, so… not just a cute name.
And Birds of Prey so badly wants to spray the fun around as much as Harley and her aforementioned weapon. There’s an incongruous dream dance number (weird that this purposely-ersatz sequence doesn’t look much cheaper than the rest of the film’s brightly-colored, shallow sets), nods to Cain and Canary’s voices in the comics, canned Looney Tunes foley gags (this Warner Bros. picture did begin with a cartoon, after all), practical application of roller derby training, and one visceral upgrade to the climax of Raising Arizona. It doesn’t add up to an indelible whole but, at intervals, Birds of Prey is precisely the self-aware, giddy time that the trailer promised.
An intrinsic component of the fun is McGregor, savoring his time as a vain, prissy, germaphobic misogynist, mugging through black maskara and screaming about “MY THINGS!” like a misquoted Dennis Reynolds. His slavering over-the-top heavy is the only one coming close to exuding the energy of Robbie’s divisively-big Harley Quinn. The rest of the cast is pretty mundane, as talented as they’ve proven elsewhere, adroitly executing the various brawls and chase scenes, while not really doing much with the supposed emotional core of the Birds coming together and bonding through their maternal protectiveness over Cain. Meanwhile, Steven Williams fills yet another “Playing a Police Captain” punch card.
DC Films is nothing if not a student of the comic book movie genre—just not a particularly good one. As much as their movies strive to ape or improve on what’s come before, they continue making the same mistakes. It’s exciting and refreshing that Birds of Prey ostensibly operates as this kick-ass, tongue-in-cheek romp for fangirls, very nearly approximating the flavor of a Captain Marvel-Deadpool melange. But its winking reference to Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang somewhere in the second act is all too indicative of the lingering stink of the all-over-the-place Suicide Squad. The next Birds could stand to be tighter, more substantive, or at least way more unhinged. In a picture meant to extricate Harley Quinn from the abuses of her last movie as much as those of her last relationship, Birds of Prey can’t shake the baggage from either.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Director: Cathy Yan
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Runtime: 109 minutes
Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor